Singer, Peter (1946–)

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Peter Singer is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. While other philosophers have been more important in the development of the discipline, none has changed more lives. Newsweek magazine observed that the modern animal rights movement may be dated from the publication of Animal Liberation. This book has sold more than 500,000 copies in sixteen languages thus far. Altogether Singer is responsible in whole or part for producing thirty-six books, and a vast number of articles and reviews in journals ranging from The Philosophical Review to the New York Times.

Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, on July 6th, 1946. His parents were Viennese Jews who escaped in 1938, shortly after the Anschluss incorporated Austria into the German Reich. He went on to Melbourne University, where as an undergraduate he studied law, history, and philosophy. In 1969 he received an MA in philosophy, writing a thesis on Why Should I Be Moral? A scholarship allowed Singer to complete his graduate studies in Oxford, where he received his bachelor's in philosophy in 1971 and served as Radcliffe lecturer from 1971 to 1973.

In 1972 Singer published Famine, Affluence, and Morality in the first volume of a new journal, Philosophy and Public Affairs. This article, which has been reprinted more than two dozen times, is important for several reasons. In terms of style it was an unconventional philosophical essay in that it was written in simple, direct prose, with few references to philosophical texts. Rather than beginning from Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, or a hypothetical moral question, it addressed events that were occurring as Singer was writing. The article began with these words: "As I write this, in November, 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care." Singer went on to present his readers with a stark moral challenge. On the basis of some apparently simple, plausible premises, he argued that affluent people ought to transfer their resources to those who are worse off until they reach the point at which further transfers would hurt them more than they would benefit others. Singer was asking his readers to give up their opera tickets, their wine cellars, and private schools for their childrenthe accoutrements of the sophisticated, upper-middle-class life favored by many academics. Furthermore, Singer was completely unapologetic about making such demands: "The whole way we look at moral issues needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society."

In autumn 1973, Singer moved to the United States in order to teach at New York University. He was in America only sixteen months, but his visit had a large impact. He wrote most of Animal Liberation during his stay and, while working on the book, Singer presented draft chapters to philosophy departments around the country. Also during his time in New York, Singer wrote "Philosophers Are Back on the Job" for the New York Times Magazine (1974). This essay brought the practical ethics movement to the attention of a wide, non-professional audience.

In 1975 Singer returned to Melbourne where he remained until 1999, except to take up various visiting appointments in universities around the world. Since 1999 he has been the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bio-ethics at Princeton University.

Virtually all of Singer's work exemplifies the following three important characteristics. First, it is revisionary. The point of practical ethics is not simply to understand the world, but to change it. A second characteristic of Singer's work is that facts matter. Philosophy may begin where facts run out, as Singer wrote in "Philosophers Are Back on the Job" (p. 20), but it is hard to see what philosophy would be for Singer if it didn't start with a vivid appreciation of the way things are. Finally, Singer's work presupposes that individual action can make a difference. As his work has unfolded, Singer has increasingly addressed social policy dimensions of the problems that he considers, but he usually writes as one person in conversation with another. His goal is to change our attitudes and behavior because that is how one changes the world.

Although he has written widely, Singer is most closely associated with his defense of animals and his attack on the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life. According to Singer, other things being equal, it is better to experiment on a profoundly brain-damaged human infant than on a normal chimpanzee. The normative theory that underwrites these judgments is utilitarianism. The good to be maximized, in the case of self-conscious creatures (persons), is satisfied preferences; in the case of non-persons, it is pleasure and the absence of suffering. In metaethics, Singer follows the universal prescriptivism of his teacher, R. M. Hare.

Singer's recent writing has ranged from practical ethics to work that is more personal. His most recent book, The President of Good and Evil (2004), takes President George W. Bush's moralism at face value, and subjects it to rigorous philosophical examination. His 2002 book, One World, is an ethical assessment of the environmental, economic, and legal dimensions of globalization. Pushing Time Away (2003) is the most personal of his books. It is a moving biography of Singer's maternal grandfather, David Oppenheim, a Viennese intellectual and teacher, who was murdered in the Holocaust. In recovering the life, thought, and sensibility of Oppenheim, Singer discovers strong affinities with his own thought and intellectual formation, perhaps because of a common source in the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Only in his late-50s as of 2005, Singer is likely to continue to produce important work in all areas of moral philosophy.

See also Animal Rights and Welfare; Moral Sentiments.


primary works

Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics. New York: St. Martins Press, 1995.

Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. 2nd ed. Ecco: New York, 2001.

secondary works

Jamieson, Dale, ed. Singer and his Critics. Oxford: Blackwelll, 1999.

Peter Singer.

Dale Jamieson (2005)